When it comes to Belgium, chances are you would remember Belgian beer, waffles, chocolate, or even french fries (yes, they’re Belgian, despite the name). Perhaps you’ve been to Brussels, Antwerp, or one of the cozy medieval towns such as Gent or Bruges. But I would bet that most people would probably not have heard of Hallerbos. This forest, also known as the Blue Forest, is located just to the south of Brussels. Every spring, around the second half of April, thousands of blooming bluebells turn Hallerbos into spectacular fairy-tale. It is truly a beautiful view and a must-visit location for any outdoor lover or photographer.
I learned about Hallerbos purely by chance. One cold January night I was searching the Internet looking for the best landscape locations in Europe. It was then that I stumbled upon this article. Blue forest was one of the destinations on the list. I felt instantly intrigued. With something this cool a mere five hours drive from where I resided, I just couldn’t let this opportunity slip.
The most difficult thing about visiting Hallerbos is picking the right dates. The problem is that bluebells only bloom for a very short period of time. Normally, it about a week to 10 days, depending on the weather. On a good year, you might get two weeks. Not a whole lot of wiggle room either way. To make matters worse, the exact dates cannot be known in advance as they shift every season. Come too early and you will only see patches of blue, come a few days late – and the bloom will be gone. If you live nearby, your best bet is to wait till April. This is when the Hallerbos website starts publishing more accurate forecasts and notes about the current state of the bloom. Otherwise, take your best guess and hope you get lucky.
For me, planning a trip 2 weeks in advance wasn’t an option, so I opted for the latter. I took my time to study the blooming reports for all the previous years and other materials available on the website. Turns out, for years now the peak of the blooming season happened somewhere during the last decade of April. By May 1st, the bloom was pretty much over. I didn’t fancy taking a vacation just to visit the forest, so one weekend was all I had. Looking at the calendar I figured that a weekend of April 22-23 would probably be my safest bet. In retrospect, the best days that year (2017) would probably have been during the workweek, around 25th. My guess ended up close enough though.
When choosing a place to stay, my personal recommendation would be Brussels, especially if you have a car. Hallerbos is just 30 kilometers away to the south, making it an easy morning drive. Stay a couple of nights and you can easily combine it with a tour of the Belgian (and European) capital. That’s a good fallback option if you get unlucky with the weather. Unfortunately, that’s quite common in Belgium this time of year. Hallerbos is definitely best visited on a clear sunny day.
That’s what happened to me in fact. I arrived in Brussels late on a Friday night and was ready to head off and meet the Blue Forest early Saturday morning. There was only one problem – the sky was completely grey with no hint of sun anywhere. To add to the misery, it started raining. Note what I hoped for. I have to admit, it was tempting to just go back to bed and get some sleep instead of getting wet. In the end, I decided to give it a go. Worst case scenario – I could do some location scouting and return on Sunday better prepared.
I arrived in Belgium by car and that’s also the easiest way to get to Hallerbos from Brussels. There are a total of 9 parking lots around the forest, so parking shouldn’t be a big issue. Just check the official website to make sure all of them are open. I was a little worried about finding a spot, but it actually turned out very easy. There was loads of space on the very first parking I checked. Granted, the weather was quite bad that morning and many people stayed home. Still, even on Sunday the next day, with the sun shining brightly, I easily found a spot at 9:30 in the morning. That is to say, even in peak bloom, you don’t have to come crazy early (unless you’re after a sunrise picture). But don’t sleep too long either – the parking lot got very busy by 11 am.
In case you don’t have a car or failed to find a parking spot, don’t worry. During the blooming season, there’s a free shuttle bus from a neighboring town of Halle. The bus departs every 30 minutes, so you can park your car on the streets there and take the shuttle. Just make sure you study the area map on the website. It’s way more detailed than any other map I checked, including google maps, open maps, and Waze. Finding Hallerbos parking lots can be a real challenge otherwise. They aren’t particularly well marked and unless you know where you’re going, getting lost is a real probability.
I spent a few hours in Hallerbos on Saturday but to my dismay, the sun never really appeared. In fact, all the “sunny” images in this post are taken on Sunday, the following day. You can see for yourself just how much better the forest looks when there’s sunlight.
I still quite loved the place though and coming back the next day only reinforced that impression. The paths are well marked and clean and the whole forest is very well taken care of. It’s also beautiful and charming in any weather. Clouds and rain are not perfect for photography here but they give Hallerbos a more mystical and mysterious vibe, vastly different from a sunny day experience. Anywhere you turn, there are all shades of blue and violet covering the ground. This gives the forest an enchanting look as if it belonged to a different world.
Official map offers a few routes for exploration, but my personal recommendation is the yellow path. More specifically, its western part around the place marked as Tranendal. This area has the most bluebells and the views here are the best in the entire Hallerbos. I walked the entire path and recommend doing it too if you have time and stamina. It’s long but well worth it.
Make sure you pack a lunch and get enough water. Hallerbos is still a forest, not a park. There are only a couple of little cafes on the outskirts of the area, but not much on the inside. You’ll find a few benches here and there that are great to make a stop, rest, and have a small picnic. Having some sandwiches will definitely come in handy. Unfortunately, other facilities are scarce as well. I’ve only seen one restroom in the entire area. It’s marked with a black house symbol that reads Pavilion on the map I linked above. It’s a nice and clean restroom, but I just wish they had more.
To photographers, especially beginners, my number one tip is – think about composition. It’s especially important here in the forest. An abundance of trees, grass, branches, and everything else can easily make pictures look too busy and chaotic. I’ll be the first to admit that my own photos lack somewhat in this regard – forest photography is not one of my stronger skills yet. However, even being aware of this is an important first step to greatly improve your images. Look for lines, patterns, and simple compositions. Come early on a nice sunny day and you should be good to go. Hallerbos is a great place to practice photography and see a great spectacle of nature that can’t be easily witnessed elsewhere. So if you can, definitely make a stop here during the blooming season, and best of luck with your pictures!